Watch out for the baseball metaphors and puns that are bound to swing your way as the new Disney sports movie Million Dollar Arm hits theaters—and a home run.
The film, based on a true story, sounds like a Slumdog Millionaire spinoff: Two village boys from India win a reality show competition and train to become Major League Baseball pitchers. The events, however, took place months before Slumdog premiered in 2008.
At the height of his career, sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm of TV’s Mad Men) was schmoozing with big stars and big money. Now he can hardly pay office rent. One night while sitting in front of Chinese food cartons and mindlessly flipping channels, J.B. gets the idea to create a reality show competition called “Million Dollar Arm” in India.
He reasons: Chinese-born Yao Ming made it to the NBA and hit it out of the park with sponsorship deals. India is a mass-populated, under-scouted country with 1.2 billion people who presumably all love cricket. Cricket bowlers have great throwing arms. Statistics are in favor of him finding an Indian Yao Ming for American baseball, right?
Never mind that cricket and baseball have totally different throwing mechanics. J.B. is soon bumping and jolting on trucks and cabs all across India, seeking the arm that throws the best fastball and perspiring his way through cramped taxi rides in congested streets.
Director Craig Gillespie and cinematographer Gyula Pados shot with handheld cameras and loose frames to seize India’s colorful chaos—a tired technique for depicting South Asia that still appropriately captures the fun energy of the film.
Million Dollar Arm, like J.B.’s idea, is a safe, recycled concept, but what keeps it fresh are the endearing characters, whose personalities screenwriter Tom McCarthy (Up) fleshes out with humor and quirk.
Even J.B., sometimes deservedly called a “class-A jerk” by his neighbor/love interest Brenda (Lake Bell), is impossible to dislike; Hamm once again proves his knack for humanizing even the most arrogant, self-serving pig-in-a-Porsche.
Stealing the show, however, are the two “Million Dollar Arm” winners J.B. brings to Los Angeles, Dinesh Patel (Slumdog Millionaire’s Madhur Mittal) and Rinku Singh (Life of Pi’s Suraj Sharma). The 18-year-old boys gawk and gape as conspicuous transplants but are relatable, funny, and charming despite serious obstacles.
Problem one: They’ve got just several months to score a contract with the MLB— or they’re out. Two: They’ve never touched a baseball glove, much less a baseball. Three: They barely speak English and have little familiarity with Western life and amenities. Four: J.B. looks at them and sees two leaking cash bags. The boys, already self-critical and homesick, buckle under J.B.’s disappointment, impatience, and irritation.
More than baseball, Million Dollar Arm is about the unlikely camaraderie that blooms between two lonely boys from rural India and a lonely L.A. corporate man. The storyline is predictable and Disneyfied, but sometimes, traditional values are best told with classic tales, served with good ol’ American baseball and naan.